It was one of those light-bulb-over-the-head moments. Steve Cole was on stage introducing a song from his new album. Yeah, album; a word that we self-conscious boomers have avoided using because we didn't want to sound like self-conscious boomers lingering in the back of the technological revolution. Then he said he still called it an album because “album” meant a collection of things that go together or tell a story when they are connected. A photo album continues to be called an album, so should an album of songs. Besides, by now if you say CD you could be equally dating yourself. Most people seem to carry around their music in a palm sized device that they plug and play. If the 500 or so songs they are hoarding (who could listen to that many songs!) had some type of cohesiveness those, too, could be called an album, I guess.
There's the rub. We cherry pick songs now. One from here, one from there. The good news is that people are exploring more music and more types of music so we are not as likely to be genre-bound as we were 10 years ago. As more music has been available to hear before you purchase and you don't have to commit $15 to each artist or song you discover people are able to search and discover. We buy songs, follow “if you like...” links to discover more songs, then put on headphones and enjoy the kind of exciting eclecticism that goes beyond what you can get on even the most adventurous noncommercial radio station. In the process, though, you miss the experience of complete immersion that comes from getting quiet, not doing anything, and just allowing yourself to listen to a really strong album all the way through.
The 60's and 70's were they heyday of the album. There were musicians putting out an hour or more worth of music that you wanted to hear straight through over and over and over again. Part of this was the attention to the overall quality of every song on the album. Part of it was the lack of distractions. It's harder to walk across the room and pick the needle up and move it to the next track than to hit the skip button, click a mouse, or delete the songs you don't like from your playlist. Also, temptations and distractions abound when you are listening to an album you love on your iPod or online. Sites like Spotify tease you with your collection of playlists on one side of the screen and promotions for new music on the other. Retail sites send you song hopping with links to other people's playlists or lists of what people who like this one also bought. After a half hour or so of hopping around you forget what you originally intended to listen to!
The industry has fed this cherry-picking fervor by creating a big hit -- often producer driven -- then sending the performer in to quickly record nine more songs so there will be an album. The album with one or two hit songs and a bunch of half thought out filler has become the norm and after a consumer gets burned a few times they don't buy albums anymore. Also, the recording technology has become so accessible that the A&R process – which offered a certain amount of quality control – no longer acts as a filter. Musicians are putting out albums before they are ready. They don't have a war-chest of strong songs or the musical skills to pull it off but they go to the basement, pull up Garage Band or ProTools and have at it. One cool song and nine others that are rushed, incomplete or unpolished. No wonder consumers are only opening their wallets in one song increments.
This is what you miss, though. Just listening. Not searching, skipping, or reading the sidebars. Letting all of that go and letting the music take you away. Getting into a specific artist's style and state of mind. Adding the feelings that come to you to the mix. Just stopping. I have albums that connect me with the time and place where I was when I listened to them over and over again and albums that have so many nuances that I still hear new things every time I put them on. There are albums that impacted the way I hear music and led me into journeys of musical discovery. You did not listen to one track of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew then skip to something entirely different. You put the headphones on and let it do its thing to you. Same with Dylan's Blonde On Blonde, Joni's Hissing of Summer Lawns, Prince's Purple Rain, the first Led Zeppelin album, Pat Metheny's The Way Up, the list goes on and will be different for everyone. David Sedaris wrote a whole essay on the summer he spent listening to Joni's Hejira album over and over again*. A long time ago I spent a summer living on a boat at a marina in a resort town that had too many bars and every night I would go home, put on Al Jarreau's This Time album and pass out to the sound of his voice and waves breaking against the side of the boats. To this day I hear the opening keyboard line from “Alonzo” and for a few minutes I am in a goosebump place, one that was more innocent and did not run at warp speed. Is this something we are losing as we create our disposable playlists and delete and replace a few weeks later?
Some people would bemoan the album as a lost art form. They would say that it has no place in our world of musical ADD and multiple options. It is harder than just tossing together a set of songs because besides quality there has to be cohesiveness, a thread that runs through and is specific to that artist's point of view. On the other hand it can't be nine songs that all sound alike. That's hard to pull off but it is still very possible. Albums are still being made in all genres by musicians of every generation. You just have to find them and actually exert some self-discipline to shut down the sidebars and listen all the way through. It's almost as hard as committing a period of time to meditation (not that I would know. I’ve tried!) Actually it is a form of meditation.
I found three albums that will be defining moments of Summer 2012 and beyond for me: Hiromi's Voice,
Cassandra Wilson's Another Country,
and Al Jarreau's Live With The Metropole Orkest
. These are all worlds unto themselves. They all speak to me on a multitude of levels but I still have to resist the itchy mouse finger, the constant “what's next” that has become our collective musical mindset and my own lack of attention span. The process is so rewarding, though. How many other ways can you deeply connect with a person you don't even know who is playing or singing for you, or mentally peel the layers of a song down to its essence and notice newness in the familiar over-repeated listenings. It has to be a great album; it has to be special to you. Find one, or three. Dig in and listen. Not in the background but with focused attention. It may be a new process to you and it may entirely change the role music plays in your life.